Obama’s Hard Road to Success

According to my experience, if you are attacked because of your diplomacy from the left and right, from doves and hawks, and from internationalists and isolationists, then it is perhaps wisest for you to be right about what you do. In the midst of many comments about the American-Russian deal this month related to Syrian chemical weapons, few were prepared to describe the decision made among the U.S., Russia and the Syrian people as a winning deal. However, at least until now, it was a winning deal among them. Really, President Obama and his team, despite their pitfalls, deserve most of the appreciation.

The charge sheet against Obama relating to Syria is long. It has been said that the U.S. will not take decisive action, while 100,000 Syrians have met their doom. It also does not have a strategy to end the conflict. Obama has created expectations of how the U.S. would behave if chemical weapons were used, but when the moment arrived, he resorted to procrastination. Subsequently, when it became impossible to avoid responding, he undertook to threaten exaggeratedly but with very modest military power. He was not interested, at the beginning, in the local opposition to intervention, but afterward he was very interested in it. Moreover, all of that permitted the cynical Kremlin to outperform the U.S. diplomatically.

However, look at the limitations. There will not be American military invention in any form whatsoever at any stage in the crisis, even [after] chemical weapons were deployed, in order to save more lives than will be at risk. The growing influence of “jihadists” within the revolutionary powers has made support for the opposition to achieve outright victory increasingly indefensible. There was no strong evidence of the use of chemical weapons by President Bashar al-Assad, at least before the Ghouta massacre in August, that could put pressure on Russia — either in the Security Council or in the court of public opinion — to reconsider its automatic support for the regime.

While the American regime remains destined to maintain the American leadership role in response — with force when necessary — when mass atrocities occur (the agenda of the responsibility to protect), a decade of fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan has made Americans greatly suspicious of war. This applies generally to the West, as can be seen in the voting by the British parliament against participation in any intervention. According to almost all people, the “decisiveness” of George W. Bush made hesitancy seem like the better choice.

If we take the past into account, we find that Obama realized achievements representing his power to avoid falling into the hell of chemical weapons. Note that it is almost certain that that fall is perpetual; the Assad regime knows that it would no longer have any friends or protectors if it crossed that red line again. Military intervention, with all its problems, has been avoided for the current time, but Assad knows that the U.S. will not have any choice but to attack — either by clear decision of the Security Council and Congress or without it — if one of these atrocities is committed again.

Beyond all that, the diplomatic cooperation related to chemical weapons has finally opened the door to for a negotiated settlement to the potential crisis in Syria. The U.N. has returned to center stage, as a global regime based on principles demands it be in such cases, when the role of the weapons inspectors of the U.N. and the Security Council is vital in future developments.

Yes, there have been have been some things that should have been done differently, but that is in the nature of things. If the justified intervention was not implemented in Libya before the U.S., Britain and France with such total disregard for the concerns of Russia, China and the developing world about exceeding the mandate, it was possible to achieve greater consensus with respect to Syria in the Security Council. In 2011, when it was possible for the Security Council to send a unified message, it was possible to stop Assad at his borders.

Going to Congress to obtain approval is usually associated with the risks outweighing the gains. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry described the possible military response to the Ghouta massacre as “very limited.” It had a very negative impact on the use of American threats in making Syrian and Russians officials focus on the subject. It was possible for the American administration to help itself in a bigger way if it had clarified that a cooperative response to the use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime was still on the table. The response to the intellectual bubble that Kerry floated was not only the result of skilled, opportunistic Russian diplomacy. It made overcoming those pitfalls possible, and it enabled all parties to focus on the opportunity rather than on excuses.

The U.S. and Russia now realize that they have shared interests in Syria. The parties do not only want to prevent the Assad regime from using chemical weapons again. Rather, they also want to find a path sustainable to peace with Syria and to re-impose the power of the U.N. along with the advantages of the U.N. in such situations.

Naturally, it is necessary for us to temper our optimism. Many errors can occur in the coming period. For example, a besieged Assad or the opposition, which is coming increasingly desperate, could end the deal on the ground. The fragile new approach between the U.S. and Russia could not hold up, especially if the U.S. insists again — after recently breaking its useful silence — that there is no place for Assad at the negotiating table.

However, when the great powers cooperate on a just cause, the world becomes a more secure and rational place. That is what the U.S. and Russia — and China, with respect to this issue — must do. If Obama and his resilience that brought us to this point were cautious, then it would be best to commend him for that, because he deserves such praise.

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